There’s much chatter on social media claiming that the failure of Special Counsel Robert Mueller to draw any conclusive links between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — combined with the exhaustive coverage of the investigation — is proof of a bias against the president by the news media.
It’s hard to exaggerate the amount of coverage given to the story. And, as critics point out, some of the reporting contained inaccuracies.
Feeding that perception of bias is the confusing environment in which journalists now operate. News is conflated with opinion. “Experts” and “analysts” on network news shows are viewed as journalists. Mistakes are assumed to be intentional.
I also suspect that many people are not making distinctions between the numerous information sources that mention the investigation, a point also made by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan in an interview Monday. Not all information is news, although some may be disguised as such.
“It’s very misleading to paint everyone with the same brush, which we call the media,” Sullivan said. “After all, are we talking about The Washington Post or are we talking about Fox News or ‘The Rachel Maddow Show’? Or Twitter? Or ‘Saturday Night Live'”?
When network news viewers see an analyst sitting next to the anchor speaking about the Russia story or any other issue, many see no difference between the pundit and a reporter beamed in live from the scene of a news event. Matthew Pressman, an assistant professor of journalism at Seton Hall University, said there’s an economic angle to the trend.
“It’s a lot easier to just sit around and speculate than it is to go out and do original reporting,” Pressman said.
Another trend is putting journalists on these shows. While it might seem that would cause less confusion, it potentially creates another problem: setting up a reporter to offer opinions rather than facts.
“Journalists run the risk of diminishing their credibility when they appear on talk programs, espousing their opinions,” said Michael Deas, who teaches at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. “If they approach TV appearances with the same objectivity as a news story, I think that could change public perception. Unfortunately, most people today confuse journalists with media personalities, which creates challenges for us.”
My journalism career spans three decades, and I’ve seen the challenges pile up first-hand. Journalists have never been ranked highly by news consumers during this time, and there is far more distance between the two today. Winning them over is difficult, and for some, the endless coverage of Mueller’s investigation gives them more reason to distrust the press.
Journalists had no choice but to cover the story, given what was happening. So many people close to the Trump campaign had interactions with Russians and lied about it. And President Donald Trump always spoke fondly about Russian President Vladimir Putin while being less kind to U.S. allies.
Perhaps journalists didn’t have to donate so much time, space and energy to the story.
“I think that there was probably a little more oxygen devoted to it than was called for, especially with some idle speculation. But I certainly think that it was a huge story that was deserving of a lot of attention,”
Sullivan prefers to look forward, not back.
“While important, it is not the most important thing to American citizens and voters,” she said. “There are pocketbook issues — things like affordable housing, the economy, healthcare — that are much closer to home to people. And I think there probably should be something of a shift from the near-obsession with the Trump-Russia story to something that speaks to people’s concerns and interests more closely.”
Theodore L. Glasser, professor emeritus of communication at Stanford University, does look back at the coverage and finds it “right on target.” He mostly followed the story in The New York Times.
“I thought it was thorough, fair and important,” Glasser said. “Since the president is the most powerful person in this country, maybe in the world, any potential wrongdoing associated with the president deserves the coverage it received.”
Rod Hicks is Journalist on Call for the Society of Professional Journalists.